Sunday, December 30, 2012

The consul-general

Old Hanoi
Every bit as engaging as His Honour Mr. Craig in Dubai, Daphne Park (the late Baroness Park of Monmouth) furnished her valedictory dispatch to the Secretary of State from the British consulate-general in Hanoi on October 25, 1970—St. Crispin’s Day. Although she was H.M. Consul-General, it is now openly acknowledged that she was also a high-ranking, experienced, and extremely effective officer of the Secret Intelligence Service (SIS), so her tour of duty in Hanoi was a dangerous one. Yet even if she had not been a British spy, Lady Park’s despatch reveals a keen eye for the conditions of life and the almost inconceivable hardships endured by ordinary people in North Vietnam, even while she and all the other western diplomats were prevented from making more than the most superficial contact or communication with anyone. Even so, she was alert to the stoicism and cheerfulness and the domestic economy of families, and, above all, the mood and appearance of Vietnamese children—and reported everything she saw in the absence of anything more politically useful or diplomatically promising. Except for Pyongyang it is difficult to imagine a tougher or more trying “hardship post” than Hanoi during the later stages of the Vietnam war.

The Residence was formerly a house of ill-fame. Handerchiefs are boiled in the saucepans, other dirty clothes in the dustbin. When the household cat disappeared, opinion was divided whether she had been eaten by the neighbours or the rats. When even more water than usual flooded the bathroom floor, and even less (though more noisome) water came from the tap, and the plumbers eventually came, they withdrew for three days to attend cadre meetings before removing the dead rats they found in the pipes. No rodent extermination exists because, officially, rats have been eliminated. Unfortunately the rats do not know this. When Ambassadors come to dinner and it rains, the drawing-room floor is covered with buckets and saucepans to catch the water from the ceiling. The major-domo at the Residence has been at some earlier time an inmate of a mental institution; the misfortune is that he was ever released. Nearly every necessity of life must be imported, though only upon receipt, after some months, of import permits listing each jar of herbs, each bundle of toothpicks. The Director of Customs has sometimes refused a permit, or proposed to allow in only part of the order, on the ground that Her Majesty’s Representative “has had enough this year” and does not need it. The presents most prized by local staff, when they dare to accept them, are razor blades, bicycle repair outfits, bottles (empty) and Aspro…

The small but fortunate number of those who have served here will find no difficulty in guessing that this dispatch comes from Hanoi. They too have been Non-Persons, issuing visas on affidavits, and yearly Queen’s Brithday invitations to Viet-Namese, who do not come, on cards without crests. They have received warnings not to enter forbidden areas, but no map defining them. Out of tender Viet-Namese regard for their lives and health they have been yearly refused a bicycle, as well as being denied access to the swimming pool, the International Club, the diplomatic shop, and, for nine years, permission to travel outside the city. But like me, most of them have wanted to come here and have left with some regret—though never quite enough to ask for another year. The very great political interest of the post is still not enough to account for its fascination; I have tried therefore in this valedictory dispatch to define the peculiar flavour of Hanoi, and to communicate what it is possible to learn about the North Viet-Namese from the sheer physical fact of living here.

The disagreeable and restrictive features of life in North Viet-Nam which I have cited are no more than incidental, though they wear away time, temper and sometimes health. The real hardship lies in the fact that, surrounded by Viet-Namese, we can know none of them. It is in part our non-recognition of North Viet-Nam which creates this special vacuum round us, and it is a wise policy which limits our tour here to a year: it might be difficult to report objectively for longer. Yet even if the end of the war should bring about the establishment of diplomatic relations and hence the relaxation of the present restrictions upon us, isolation from the Viet-Namese will continue, I believe, to be the rule. The unconsciously arrogant reserve which the Viet-Namese display at home, even towards their friends, will be increasingly reinforced by the defensive security processes of a Communist society. The shooting war over, the ideological war will go on, and there are few grounds for believing that Communism has been a temporary expedient here and that the rulers of North Viet-Nam are merely waiting to slough their Communist skin and appear in fresh and uncommitted nationalist colours. It may be a long time before this snake changes skin again…

When I arrived here 13 months ago buffaloes grazed on the grass in front of the Consulate-General, the factory defence militia practiced unarmed combat and grenade throwing there, an occasional cyclo-pousse creaked past carrying a family and its chattels, and at night the bats swooped and the cicada were noisy. None of this has changed. But the sentry outside the Algerian Embassy has planted a garden round his sentry-box, Hanoi is full of new lorries, the shape of Ho Chi Minh’s mausoleum is under debate, and the State Plan for 1970 has allowed the Residence roof to be mended; my successor will not need to catch the drips in the drawing room. A new kitten appeared at the Residence this month, and may one day kill rats if it survives. We have moved a few steps out of Limbo for we have been allowed to travel, and perhaps even hell is a little less hot than before. The children are back from the country and Hanoi is a year further from the war. I do not yet know, and neither do the Viet-Namese, whether that means they are a year nearer to peace.

I am sending a copy of this despatch to to Her Majesty’s Representatives in Saigon, Washington, Paris, Moscow, Vientiane, Phnom Penh, Bangkok, Peking, Tokyo, Canberra, Wellington and Ottawa and to the Political Advisor to the Commander-in-Chief at Singapore.

I have, &c.,

Daphne Park
Officially Lady Park (known to her friends and colleagues as Daffers) went from the Belgian Congo to Hanoi, and proceeded thence to be British chargé d’affaires in Outer Mongolia. Unofficially, however, in 1975 she rose to become Controller, Western Hemisphere, of the Secret Intelligence Service (SIS), the highest rank then attained by a British woman in the espionage community. She died in 2010.

No comments:

Post a Comment